It’s one of the first things you teach any new shooter: to hit a clay you have to shoot where it’s going, not where it is. It’s simple physics really. It takes the shot a certain amount of time to travel from the gun to the target. During that time, the target doesn’t stand still. So if you shoot directly at it, it will be gone by the time your shot gets there, and you will miss behind. You have to shoot ahead of the target or, as shooters say, give it some ‘lead’. That’s lead rhyming with bead, meaning forward allowance – not lead rhyming with dead, meaning the stuff your shot is made from. You want to give it some of that too, but that’s by the by!
Most of the novices I teach quickly grasp the concept of lead. They understand the need to shoot ‘in front’ of the target, and putting it into practice usually comes quite naturally to them. At that stage I try not to complicate things by talking about different types of lead. But when new shooters get out into the big bad world and start talking to other shooters, they hear about ‘swing through’, ‘pull away’ and the rest, and they’re quickly confused. It’s straightforward enough, though, so let’s look at the three basic types of lead, what they mean, and when you might use them.
Essentially you see the target and mount the gun behind it. Following the line of the target, you swing the gun to catch up, keep swinging through the target, get ahead of it and shoot, keeping the gun moving as you fire. It’s important not to stop the gun as you pull the trigger, or you will inevitably miss behind.
The ‘swing through’ method has the advantage that you naturally find the line of the target, and the acceleration of your barrels through and in front of the target naturally provides the lead. It’s well suited to game shooting, where no two birds are the same, but other methods can give more consistent results on clays.
This method is often taught by clay shooting instructors, as it’s generally accepted as the best foundation for good clay shooting technique and is suited to most types of Sporting clays. Here we are aiming to mount the gun onto the target, then pull ahead of it and fire. Once again, it’s important not to stop your swing as you shoot.
The ‘pull away’ method is more of a planned technique, used on clays where you know in advance what the target will do. You watch a target and decide on your three points: the kill point (where you’re going to shoot it), the pick-up point (where you first see the clay clearly), and your gun hold point (where you hold the gun as you call for the clay).
You hold your gun at the gun hold point, call ‘pull’ and wait for the target to appear at your pick-up point. You mount onto the clay, moving with it, then pull ahead and shoot as it reaches your kill point. The clay never overtakes your barrels – you mount on it, not behind it, and ‘pull away’ in front.
This method is reckoned to be more precise because the speed and line of your barrels are dictated by the target itself. That’s in contrast to a poorly executed ‘swing through’, which can deteriorate into a wild swipe at the target.
Maintained lead is a more specialised technique that tends to be used by more experienced shooters for specific types of target. For instance, some shooters will use maintained lead for longer crossing targets, or tricky looping battues.
The idea here is to put your barrels the correct distance in front of the target, then swing at the same speed as the target, maintaining the correct lead as you fire. Once again, of course, you must resist any urge to stop the swing as you fire, or you’ll miss behind.
Advocates of this method say it’s possible to be more consistent because your gun is travelling at the same speed as the target. You’ve decided the amount of lead it needs, and that’s what it gets – unlike the other two methods where the gun is moving at a different speed to the target when you fire, so your reaction time comes into play.
Those are the three main types of lead, but there are others. You’ll hear people talk about ‘ambush’ or ‘spot shooting’, ‘swing-to’ and the like. These tend to be specialised methods for very specific targets. They all have their place, but if there’s one piece of advice I’d suggest you learn to shoot the ‘pull away’ method first, and only change it when you fully understand why a different method is needed for a specific target.